Yesteryear: Clown teaching Luton children road safety? I should Coco!

Coco the Clown at Maidenhall Junior School, Luton, in 1962.
Coco the Clown at Maidenhall Junior School, Luton, in 1962.
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After he was involved in a serious road accident in 1960, one of the world’s most famous clowns devoted himself to promoting road safety for children.

Coco visited schools across the country spreading the safety message to pupils and was appointed an OBE for his work.

He was invited toMaidenhall Junior School in Maidenhall Road, Luton, two years after the accident and a Luton News photographer was there to picture him talking to the youngsters. As you can see, they were all well-behaved, sitting with legs crossed and listening intently to his advice.

Coco’s real name was Nicolai Poliakoff and he was born to a Jewish family in Latvia in 1900. He was technically not a clown, but an Auguste – the foolish character always on the receiving end of buckets of water and custard pies.

The Auguste often works with the clever white-faced clown who always gets the better of him.

Coco arrived in the UK with his wife in 1929 and appeared for many years with Bertram Mills’ Circus.

His clown persona had two distinctive visual features that endeared him to audiences.

The first were his boots, described as being size 58, and the second was his trick hair that lifted when he was surprised, with hinges in the centre parting.

He entertained troops during the Second World War as a member of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association).

Coco continued in the circus until the mid 1960s – alongside his road safety campaign – seated ringside while selling programmes dressed in his full costume.

He died in Peterborough District Hospital on September 25, 1974 and is buried at Woodnewton in Northamptonshire.

A group of clowns in costume gathered at St Mary’s Church, Woodnewton, last year to pay tribute to Coco on the 40th anniversary of his death.

The vast Luton News archive at Wardown Park Museum also contains pictures of Coco clowning around during a visit to a Luton cinema’s Saturday morning club for children in November 1953.

Coco greeted the kids at the Ritz Cinema Minors’ Club in Gordon Street near Luton Town Hall.

The venue was renamed the Ritz in 1949 after it opened 12 years earlier as the Union Cinema. It was converted into a disco in the 1970s and in 1999 the building underwent major refurbishment to turn it into a nightclub.